PKM Roles

I like to frame personal knowledge management as a combination of seeking knowledge, making sense of it, and sharing it with others. This simple model has worked well in explaining the main concepts of PKM and helping others to individually construct a set of processes to make sense of the world and work more effectively. Two key factors are sense-making and sharing, which I have shown on the image below.

PKM quadrantsWhile the upper right quadrant is where we might think we should put our efforts, it stands to reason that not all of us can work there for all the facets of our lives. Sometimes we are merely seeking something very quickly, at other times we may share without much thought, and there are times we want to keep our sense-making private, as we mull over new ideas. We are also limited to the amount of time we have to put a lot of thought into everything we do. Sometimes it is best to leave that to others.

Over 10 years ago Patrick Lambe wrote a very good guide on the various roles one can have in PKM.

Most people treat PKM as if it’s a full suite of skills that everybody now needs to have: skills like identifying sources of knowledge, searching, navigating, analyzing, organizing, linking, mapping, converting back and forth between tacit (head) knowledge and explicit (written down) knowledge, relationship building skills, communication, presentation, knowledge packaging, and so on. But in fact, like most things, different people have different personality types, and different personality profiles in relation to their personal knowledge affinities and capabilities. – PKM: A DIY Guide to Knowledge Management

Lambe identified six roles: Consumers, Communicators, Collectors, Connectors, Critics, and Creators. I have taken these and placed them on the same sharing & sense-making quadrant I used above. If you read the DIY guide, there are a series of questions to help identify your own tendencies in PKM. This is a good guide for work groups to find out how knowledge is co-created and shared. An effective team would have people engaged in all roles and provide some load-sharing for creation and criticism, both of which take significant effort. You could look at PKM by area of specialization as well, having a few people responsible as Creators, while others are nominated Critics. Those not as knowledgeable in a field can still play a role as a Connector, Collector, or Communicator.

PKM 6CAnother way to look at these roles is as an individual. When researching a field of practice, you could identify not just the Creators but also the good Critics. Critics can provide balance, something that TED Talks could learn from. The role of critic can even be formalized in an organization, as the US Army has done at its “Red Team University”.

The school is the hub of an effort to train professional military “devil’s advocates” — field operatives who bring critical thinking to the battlefield and help commanding officers avoid the perils of overconfidence, strategic brittleness, and groupthink. The goal is to respectfully help leaders in complex situations unearth untested assumptions, consider alternative interpretations and “think like the other” without sapping unit cohesion or morale, and while retaining their values.

More than 300 of these professional skeptics have since graduated from the program, and have fanned out through the Army’s ranks. Their effects have been transformational — not only shaping a broad array of decisions and tactics, but also spreading a form of cultural change appropriate for both the institution and the complex times in which it now both fights and keeps the peace.
Andrew Zolli: HBR 26 Sept 2012

Connectors are also quite helpful. You may want to differentiate them from the mere Communicators, who do not add much value to what they share. However, finding Collectors can also be useful, as they may have information few others do. Of course, they’re harder to find because they don’t share.

PKM creator criticThe roles of Creator and Critic are the most important in sense-making, but there is valuable work for others in disseminating information. So what roles do you engage in? Do you know how to find knowledgeable people in a field? If you are working with others, what role can you play in your group or network? Is everyone conscious of the sense-making and knowledge-sharing activities and practices in the network? If not, how can you identify any gaps in the knowledge flows? Perhaps these frameworks can help.

3 Responses to “PKM Roles”

  1. Maureen Crawford

    Most of the time that I was reading this post I was nodding my head in agreement. I particularly like where you acknowledge that we all may take on different roles at different times. I was not able to follow why you stated that, “Those not as knowledgeable in a field can still play a role as a Connector, Collector, or Communicator.” It seems like you are indicating that people would take on unchanging roles. I don’t see how a connector role would fit a newbie. Additionally I cannot figure out why, if you are going to distinguish these roles, you would not include the low sense-making, low-sharing role of consumer in the “not as knowledgeable category”.
    I have been giving filters a great deal of thought lately and it seems to me that each one of the roles you have identified here could be viewed as process filters.

    Your quotation concerning the American army was really interesting. The history of the term the Devil’s Advocate is fascinating. It was established as an official position within the Vatican in 1587 and brought a healthy dose of skepticism to the canonization of saints -and yes, there was also an official position as God’s Advocate.

    As I mentioned to you when you first showed me your model – it reminds me of the Kantor Four Player Model which I was introduced in the leadership development at the Banff Centre. The Kantor model contains a mover, a follower, an opposer and a bystander. The two things that seems fairly unique to me about the Kantor model was 1.) the importance of the role of the bystander 2.) that the order in which each role was played out in the change process determined whether the initiative was likely to succeed or fail! So, my question to you is – Have you given any consideration to the importance of sequencing? Is there an importance regarding sequencing?

    Lastly, I disagree with your placement of the critic and the creator. I would invert them. In my experience most critics have been on the high side of sharing rather than the low side and many creators are reluctant to share.

    Thanks once again for this – lot of food for thought.

    • Harold

      The images I created are just works in progress. Perhaps the next version will show the roles with overlapping boundaries, like a Venn diagram. I will explore Kantor’s work further, as the role of critic in knowledge management interests me.

  2. Jon Husband

    Are there different competencies that are pertinent to each role ?

    That there are seems axiomatic to me.


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